A sermon preached on May 24th, 2010, Pentecost Sunday, and on the occasion of the baptism of Jacob Theodore Schnetzer, based upon Acts 2:1 – 21.
From very early on in my life there have been moments in which I was struck by the most fundamental of questions: “Why is there everything and not nothing?” At such moments, I felt an unfiltered awe about the fact of being alive.
Scientists can tell us a great deal about how the universe began back 14 billion plus years ago at that moment in time when all of matter and energy was compressed into a tiny point of space, when suddenly the proverbial big bang took place, causing matter and energy to expand outward ever since. What they can’t tell us is why this happened.
The baptismal font in which baby Jacob was baptized this morning contains water, which evokes a variety of symbolic meanings, but one of which is that moment described poetically in the very first verses of the Bible. At the beginning of time a great wind (the holy spirit) blew over the great dark abyss full of the chaos of boundless water, like a mother hen hovering over her brood, birthing creation, bringing order – light separated from darkness, dry land separated from water. Why is everything here? The story in Genesis answers emphatically: because God called creation into being, declaring it to be good!
The Bible story of creation, of course, is quite different from the scientific description of the beginning of the universe, but in certain significant ways they echo one another: The creation becomes increasingly complex, culminating in the creation of life, climaxing in the creation of conscious human life. The account in Genesis 1 has human beings, made in the image and likeness of God arriving on the final day of creation; the scientists tell us it took 14 billion years for us to show up. But the point is the same; we are the pinnacle of an evolving creation, with a special role to play.
The Biblical perspective declares that which is beyond the perimeters of science to affirm: we are here because God wanted us here. We are here for a purpose. We are capable of incredible good as well of atrocious evil, and the intention of our creation involves our exercising our freedom for good rather than evil.
And with the creation of every human being, indeed, with the creation of Jacob Theodore Schnetzer, we marvel once again at the opportunity God has brought about in the creation in human life.
The Biblical account grapples with the mystery of our human freedom; the fact that so often we are possessed by an arrogance that wreaks destruction. It tells of the original human beings coming together to build a great tower in a place called Babel with the ambition of reaching the very heavens and usurping God’s place of supremacy. It describes their arrogance bringing about a great crashing, with the result being the human race became divided by a multitude of languages and cultures that functioned as barriers, walls of suspicion fostering hostility and violence for millennium to come.
In the coming of Christ, God enters creation in order to reconcile our deep brokenness. Jesus, empowered by the holy spirit at his baptism, tells his disciples after his resurrection to wait in Jerusalem to receive “power from on high.”
And so on the day of Jewish festival of Pentecost, as pilgrims from all over the known world gathered in Jerusalem to give thanks for the harvest, the apostles were came together in one place. Suddenly that same wind that blew over the original chaos began to blow once more, and something other wordly, described as “tongues of fire” descended upon each receptive soul, enabling them to speak in the languages of all the pilgrims who had gathered that day in Jerusalem from every corner of the world. The bystanders, attracted by the loud noises generated from the disciples’ meeting place marveled as they heard the great deeds of God proclaimed in their own language – heard about God’s great YES to our life declared in their own, native dialect.
An undeniable miracle was witnessed by those who were on hand; one that reversed the terrible curse of Babel. It is at this point in the story that a bit of detective work is required. We are told that some who were on hand could not perceive the miracle. Their explanation for all the commotion that is taking place is that the apostles are drunk with wine, even though, as Peter soon points out, its only 9 a.m. If we ask ourselves, how could they have missed the miracle that was so obvious to others, with a bit of thought we come up with the answer: The doubters were those who expected to hear their own language spoken. They were the insiders, the residents of Jerusalem, who felt entitled to hear their own language spoken. As such, they missed the miracle that was so obvious to those who came from far away and did not expect to hear their language spoken.
This is not surprising if you consider the story of Jesus’ ministry. He was welcomed by society’s outsiders: the poor, those considered sinners, the outcastes. He was rejected by the insiders; those with a stake in the power structure. The same happens on the day of Pentecost as the holy spirit births the church – the community of people empowered to be the Body of Christ.
For the next 300 years the church would flourish even as it continued in the outsider status, persecuted by those possessing the political power. And then in 313 AD something turned things upside down: Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and suddenly the church went from being a community of outsiders to being the insiders, a fact that has over the centuries oftenjeopardized our capacity to hear clearly the good news of Jesus Christ. Too often the church has been afflicted with the arrogance of those who think they are in the know and therefore are entitled.
The truth is, we are all outsiders who have been invited into the circle of God’s love. There is always room in the circle because through Jesus we have all been invited in realm that we were not on our own entitled to possess.
Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like a little child, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Babies like Jacob are our teachers, showing us to let go of what we think we know, so we can experience again the wonder of being alive, to be here when we might well have never been here at all.
Paul Simon has this great line from one of his songs: “Did you ever have a moment of grace when you brain took a seat behind your face?” Yesterday I was invited to the home of Benjamin and Sudha Winston to celebrate the first birthday of their son Samuel. It was an unusual experience for me, because there were about thirty people there and I was the only person who did not have an ancestry that traced back to India. There was an Indian pastor on hand who passed out song books, with the majority of the songs in their Indian dialect. We sang a couple of songs that I happily hummed and clapped along to, having the sort of moment of which Paul Simon sang. The meaning of the songs was clear enough, even if I could not understand the words: we were singing of the great deeds of God, just like on the first Pentecost. Then, for my benefit, they began to sing songs in English. It was so thoughtful of the others to sing in such a way that I would feel fully included. I thought about how often these good folks, newly immigrated to the United States, have likely found themselves in precisely the opposite situation; the outsider looking in. They were so gracious; the holy spirit was blowing among us as celebrated together the gift of life in baby Samuel, just as it was given to baby Jacob.
May we so live in this wondrous grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, empowered by the unifying power of the holy spirit.